After two weeks of sitting idle and watching other ECAC teams beat up on each other, the Harvard men's hockey team returns to action this week eager to beat up on some teams on its own.
Harvard hopes to maintain its place in a tie atop the ECAC standings when it resumes play with games against Colgate (5-15-4, 3-8-1 ECAC) tonight and a critical contest against rival Cornell (9-6-4, 7-3-2) tomorrow night. The Crimson will look to build on its success against both these teams earlier this year, when it earned three points in upstate New York. Harvard beat Colgate 3-2 and tied Cornell 1-1 on the trip.
Surprisingly, the Crimson returns to ECAC play in the same position as it left it before exam period--in first place. Although other conference teams had as many as six games in hand in mid-January, none of the closest contenders have been able to string together enough victories to overtake the Crimson.
Vermont, once in second place, has since collapsed, going 1-6-1 in January.
"There's always been lot of parity in the ECAC, especially this year," captain Steve Moore said. "We're happy that we're able to control our situation." The Crimson heads into the weekend tied for first place with surging St. Lawrence--who has won seven of its last nine--and one point ahead of Cornell. The Saints and Big Red both have one more game in hand, however.
Yet Harvard has the easiest remaining conference schedule of all conference frontrunners. The Crimson plays six of its final nine ECAC games at Bright, where it hasn't lost since November. Harvard also beat each of its three remaining road opponents at home by three goals.
"The layoff benefits us," sophomore forward Brett Nowak said. "We're going to be healthy and we're going to be home, but we've still got a lot of tough teams to play against."
Harvard opens the weekend tonight against a struggling Colgate squad. The Red Raiders have not been able to build off of their NCAA tournament appearance a year ago, as they sit tied for tenth in the ECAC.
Although the Red Raiders have been unable to replace the offensive firepower they lost from last year's graduation of All-American forward Andy McDonald, their biggest liability lies inside their own blue line.
Colgate goaltender Jason Lefevre has been charitable all-season, giving up 3.51 goals a game while stopping barely 88 percent of his opponents' shots, ranking last among starting ECAC netminders.
The Red Raiders remain a talented team, however. Seventeen starters returned from last year's tournament-qualifying squad, including sniper Sean Nolan, who leads all ECAC players with 18 goals on the season. Colgate beat No. 5 Michigan in its season-opener, and many of its losses have been one-goal decisions.
Harvard figures to face a much tougher and more crucial challenge tomorrow evening against Cornell. The Big Red have turned Bright into Lynah Rink East in recent years, having not lost at Harvard during Coach Mike Schafer's six-year tenure. The streak includes a 6-2 rout over the Crimson last year.
Cornell features a stifling defense, anchored by captains Danny Powell and Larry Pierce and backed up by Mark McRae and Doug Murray. A combination of size and physical play will present a challenge for the Crimson attack. The Big Red unit is especially effective on the penalty kill, allowing league opponents to score on only four of 57 chances.
"We need to play hard down low and get chances off of transition,"
Nowack said. "They're a hard-nosed team, but their defense is kind of slow. We need to take advantage of their big, slow defense."
The Big Red's last line of defense is no less stingy than its corps of blueliners. Cornell platoons two impressive goaltenders in Matt Underhill and Ian Burt.
Underhill, who has been getting most of the playing team lately after Burt suffered an injury last month, has been particularly impressive, posting a .918 save percentage and allowing a paltry 1.93 goals-per-game in ECAC play.
"Cornell is a very hard-working and physical team," Moore said. "We always play them close, and we're looking for the same affair on Saturday."
The Harvard attack will be boosted by the return of freshman winger Tim
Pettit, a frontrunner for ECAC Rookie of the Year honors. Pettit did not play in the Crimson's previous two games due to a sprained ankle, and his offensive skills were especially missed during the Crimson's 3-1 loss at Yale.
Cornell's weakness is in the offensive end. The Big Red lack any proven scorers and have had difficulty coming up with goals all season, ranking last in the ECAC in scoring, averaging only 2.33 goals per game in league play.
The much-maligned Crimson defense will have a great opportunity to finally shut down an opponent. Despite impressive play by senior goalie Oli Jonas, Harvard has not shut out an opponent since its season opener against Brown.
Accompanying the Big Red to Cambridge will be hordes of the team's infamous, raucous fans. Anti-Harvard sentiments run deep among this crowd.
"Cornell has a strong dislike for Harvard, and when we go there it's apparent," Nowack said. "The crowd at Cornell is pretty intense, and we expect the same here."
A sellout crowd is expected for Saturday night's game, which should make the contest especially exciting.
"The rivalry factor adds a little bit of intensity, maybe a little more dirty, chippy game," Nowack said. "That's how Cornell usually likes to play, but the crowd helps us buy into that system as well."